Gilson Lavis was the drummer of Squeeze during the years of their greatest success. Like the main Squeeze article, this was written for MOJO, January 1996.
Hired in 1976. Fired in 1982. Hired in 1984. Fired in 1992. The untold story of former Squeeze drummer, the legendary Gilson Lavis.
The burly and splendidly-named Gilson Lavis was a landmark in the Squeeze line-up until the tour before last, when his drum seat was occupied by Pete Thomas of the Attractions. Dropped by the band in ’92, Lavis now works with his old Squeeze comrade Jools Holland, who describes their partnership as being like the positive and negative ends of a battery: “In the old days he was the big, aggressive loudie. I was the small, unaggressive quietie. He’s a very loud drummer – he doesn’t hit them hard, he just has a natural power and aggression.”
By the time he joined Squeeze, Lavis was already an experienced player who’d toured with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and country acts including Dolly Parton and Skeeter Davis. What was Chuck Berry like?
“I did three or four tours with him,” Lavis recalls. “A great performer, a unique chap. The rumours you hear are mostly true. He wants his cash upfront. Many’s the time I’ve sat there onstage looking at this bulge in the back of his pants, knowing there was about $6,000 in there.”
Lavis put his own earnings into a music shop in Southend, where one local musician remembers him as “a big bruiser whose way you kept out of.” But, says Gilson, “the shop went bankrupt – it was the time of the three day week, and it didn’t stand the strain. I even put my own drum kit in the window to boost the stock.”
He came to Squeeze by way of an ad in the Melody Maker. “I was working in a brickyard by then. I was stacking bricks in Bedford in the middle of winter and I thought, There’s gotta be a better way of earning a living than this.”
From the start he was impressed by the flow of songs from Difford and Tilbrook. “They were tongue-in-cheek and melodic and diverse, and there were more of them than you could shake a stick at. And they were very open about them being changed by the band. There was a very little ego about, a nice healthy atmosphere.
“But later the atmosphere in the band wasn’t that healthy. There was a wedge starting to form, a bit of an us-and-them, with Chris and Glenn on one side of the fence and the rest of the chaps on the other. In their defence, I suppose to keep a sense of equilibrium when you’re being inundated with compliments like you’re the new Lennon & McCartney, and the pressure of writing a new album every year, was quite hard.”
It seems funny that Chris and Glenn split the band up when it was doing so well.
“Well, I didn’t think it was funny. It never struck me as an intelligent thing to do. I suppose the band had been worked to death. We’d done nothing but tour and record. I was certainly drinking far too much. Everybody was doing most things too much. It’s hard not to sound bitter, because it was a long hard slog to get to where we were. We’d certainly not made any money – for the first couple of years I was on 15 quid a week. I reached the heady heights of £50 by the time we broke up, living in a rented ground-floor flat. I was taken aback and pretty cross at the time. I was also on the sauce.
“I got sober. By then I was relatively old, knocking on the door of 30. And I thought, Well, that’s it, I’ve had my go, done Madison Square Garden, been on Top Of The Pops, got a drink problem, I’ve done it all, really. Next thing I was driving a mini cab for a time. I was a healthy boy and losing weight. Then the phone went and it was Glenn. I wasn’t quite sure whether to shout at him and hang up or not. He said, ‘D’you want to come and play a charity gig?’ And I did, as I wasn’t going out in my cab that night.
“We played the gig in south London and Glenn thought it went really well. I was still a bit stunned by it all. One minute I was dropping people off at the supermarket and charging them £1.80, the next minute I was playing drums again. This night I didn’t get a tip but I got a job.
“So the group re-formed. Off we went on the old roundabout. Once again we started off the best of chums, all mates again. But then we were working and touring and too much and doing it all again. Just repeat the first couple of paragraphs.
“I was kicked out after an American tour. I’d just separated from my wife and I was in a bit of a state. I’d been sober for seven years and I decided that having a drink would be a good idea. So on this tour I was a bit of a mess, and very depressed. When we got back there was a band meeting and I was told I wasn’t needed any more.
“It’s been a mishmash of heady highs and the most disappointing lows. Squeeze were their own worst enemy, probably still are – I don’t see or speak to them much now. Chris and Glenn are undoubtedly two of the most talented songwriters in the country. Squeeze was a good old crack in all. If anybody’s to blame it was me for taking it too seriously, because it’s all a game. Show business is a wheel of fortune.
“In fact I went straight from Squeeze to playing full time with Julian [Holland]. It’s quite a nice lifestyle. I’ve done the TV things with him, like Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, we co-wrote the Later theme, and I’ve played on the show with all sorts of people, like Stevie Winwood and best of all Dusty Springfield, who was a heroine of mine. And we tour, of course. Some nights we do wacking big live gigs, 1,000-seaters, all sold out. The next day we play a toffs’ gig somewhere, for half a dozen really rich people with more money than sense. Don’t print that! I’m ticking along like a good old pro musician. I’m sober and I’m starting to wear my jowls with pride.
“It’s been a speckled career. Before all this, you know, I was a cabaret drummer and singer. I used to wear smart dinner jackets. My mum and dad – God bless them, they’ve both passed on now – they didn’t want me to be a drummer. They wanted me to be a Matt Monro – ‘You sound just like him!’ they used to say to me. It’s with smoking too much, I suppose.”